The Enzyme and Cellular Engineering Laboratory (GEC), a CNRS-UTC joint unit, combines fundamental and applied research around two main themes. The first, called the “green” theme, concerns everything related to plant metabolism and bioresources with concrete applications, such as the replacement of mineral oils by lipids produced by plants, or the use in nutrition and health of phytosanitary-compounds known for their antioxidant and anti-tumoral properties, such as betanine. The second, the “red” theme, aims to explore the issues of bio-mimetism and biomolecular diversity, in particular by designing biomolecule banks or creating polymers with molecular fingerprints whose recognition performance is comparable to that of antibodies. Innovative research with fields of application ranging from health, to cosmetics and agro-food.
She pursues research activities at the Enzyme and Cellular Engineering (GEC) Laboratory, a joint CNRS-UTC unit. “My research focuses on the food sciences and the impact of nutrition on health, or how to improve well-being through diet,” she explains.
Appointed lecturer at UTC in 2007, Claire Rossi began in fundamental research. “The objective was to study how compounds of interest interact with cells at the molecular level, such as active molecules from plants or pathogens, such as toxins… In a word: studying precisely the moment when molecules interact with the cell membrane barrier,” she explains.
However, she had other skills — “another hat,” she says — especially in food and agro-resources, which are quite far from her fundamental research, which is mainly biological.
So, how can these two themes be reconciled, valorised and enhanced? “This is how the themes of the Food Science Platform emerged. The key idea? It was to use the concepts provided by the fundamental research carried out within UTCGEC for concrete applications developed on the platform, directly aimed at the consumer, and therefore at industry, while placing training at the centre of these activities through student projects,” she emphasizes.
This has led her to her current research, which focuses on preventive health care on the one hand and innovative foods on the other. “In the first case, the aim is to understand the activity of plant-derived molecules and their impact on human health, for example: the action of flax pectin in preventing vascular calcification or that of beet pigments for their antioxidant or antitumoral preventive properties. But the interest lies in working not only on isolated natural molecules, but to focus on their effects and their interactions within food matrices. Hence the idea of studying nutritional optimization of food. In other words, to work on very classic foods such as sauces or even sandwich bread, for example, and to rework the balance of nutrients in the food, without altering its appearance or taste, an essential point in the pleasure of eating. It is also possible to incorporate natural origin active molecules, according to the properties desired “, explains Claire Rossi.
And with what concrete applications? “Take tapioca flour produced by our partner, the Cassava Starch Corporation in Tanzania. It is a natural food that makes it possible to prepare a ‘Dutch’ sauce that is as creamy and tasty as a classic sauce, but with a fat content that is halved. In a nutshell: working on the biochemical structure of the food without denaturing it,” she says.
Involvement of students in very concrete projects? “This gives them undeniable project skills. They can then take part in competitions such as Ecotrophelia, where the various agro-food schools compete against each other, or then create startups,” insists Claire Rossi. With the Hush project for example, they won the Gold Trophy for their first participation in Ecotrophelia France in 2018 and the prize for the best innovation the same year at the European edition of this competition, where the winners from each country compete against each other? “Hush is a fruit-based drink with a cappuccino texture and a nutriscore A, the best score on a nutritional scale from A to E,” she describes. A success that delights her. “First of all, it underscores the quality of our training. It has also reinforced my approach that innovative foods must remain — this is my trademark — very tasty and give pleasure while being better for the health of the consumer. In short, to combine conviviality, pleasure and well-being,” she says.
And in terms of start-ups? “One example is Smeal, which was founded by former students, whom we supported. For several years now, it has been marketing a practical, nutritionally perfect meal, designed in particular for sportsmen and women, in the form of a rehydration powder. Hence the name ‘nomadic meal’. Or its trade-name Hush, which will be created and launched next December,” she concludes.
INNOVATION FOOD AND AGRO-RESOURCES (IAA) A HIGHLY SOUGHT-AFTER ELECTIVE SPECIALTY
It is a small specialist section (between 20 and 25 graduates per year), but recognized in the world of agro-food innovation.
By winning the Gold Trophy at the Ecotrophelia France competition in 2018, then the Coup de Coeur prize at the Ecotrophelia Europe competition with their “Hush”, fruit-based hot drink, the IAA students have demonstrated their skills. And companies are not mistaken. Indeed, between 2014 and 2017, the time it took to secure a first job was less than three months and 54% of the students were hired even before their final internship. The programme includes courses in the fields of food formulation, innovation, nutrition, analysis of organic and food products, agro-industrial operations, marketing of innovation, etc. During training, students also have access to a sensory analysis room, a food formulation laboratory and equipment for measuring the physico-chemical and rheological properties of food.
Emma Ruby, who graduated in 2017
Why did you choose this line of work?
I was attracted by the science that underscores food, it’s an area that raises questions of public interest, ethics and is at the heart of current and future issues.
And what now?
After 2 years of VIE in a bakery/pastry/ chocolate ingredients company (Puratos), I was hired as Junior R&D manager in the field of bread ‘improvers’.
His interest in this field? “It was during my post-doc in Scotland and following an epidemic in 2010/2011 that killed more than 50 people that I became interested in pathogenic host bacteria, which are mainly associated with food poisoning,” he says. From then on, Yannick Rossez’s objective was “to understand whether pathogens, known in the scientific community to specifically recognize human tissues, had developed strategies to resist in an intermediate host. Namely fruits and vegetables eaten raw”. He is interested, in particular, in ‘adhesins’ – the molecules responsible for adhesion — carried by bacteria and the strategy they develop to recognize structures carried only by plants. But one particular adhesin, the bacterial flagellum, is of particular interest to him.
“Known until now as responsible for bacterial motility — displacement of the bacterium — I discovered that it was able to adhere to human tissues via lipids on the cell surface. Without adhesion there is no bacterial pathology,” he says. Admitted to UTC in 2016, he continued his work naturally on the flagellum — “a major project”, he says — a subject that has a strong impact on the food industry by studying the interaction between lipids and bacterial flagellum in adhesion. He is developing biomimetic membranes, prof. Claire Rossi, in order to understand the mechanisms that make one lipid more favourable to adhesion than another. The result is a discovery that will be published soon: “The more we eat a diet that is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, better known as Omega 3s, the less risk we run of being colonized by bacteria”, announces Yannick Rossez.
So, what is our current strategy? “It’s a question of inhibiting the adhesion process as early as possible, preventing colonisation and therefore the appearance of bacterial pathology and, ultimately, not only reducing the use of antibiotics, but also antibiotic resistance,” he explains. Another field of research? “I’m interested in ‘mechanosensing’, a very recent and expanding discipline. Here again, the aim is to inhibit the ability of bacteria to detect surfaces and thereby prevent bacterial adhesion,” he concludes.
Portrait As a PhD student at the UTC-GEC laboratory, Hélène Cazzola is preparing a thesis entitled “Impact of cell membrane lipid composition on bacterial adhesion via the flagellum”, directed by Claire Rossi and Yannick Rossez, which she defended in October 2019.
During her last year as a chemical engineer at ESCOM, Hélène Cazzola also began a Master’s degree in biotechnology at UTC. The reason for this choice? “I like scientific multidisciplinarity, especially the interface between chemistry and biology,” she explains. And it was during her end-of-year internship at the UTC-GEC that she discovered the world of research.
“With Claire Rossi, my intern supervisor, I discovered the world of research and appreciated the opportunity to work on fundamental subjects that could be useful for future applications,” she emphasizes. It was with this in mind that she chose her thesis topic on “the adhesion of pathogenic bacteria”, she says. “Adhesion is a strategic step in the fight against the persistence of pathogens, the first step before colonization and infection of the host,” says Hélène Cazzola.
What’s your area of research? “In collaboration with Claire Rossi, I am working on the encapsulation of natural products that may be of interest to the agro-food industry. We are interested in pigments extracted from beetroot, or betanine, with promising antioxidant and anti-tumoral properties. However, these compounds are very sensitive to their environment — light, temperature, pH, etc. — and are therefore very sensitive to their environment. So they can be broken down even before they are assimilated by the body,” she explains.
A field that is nurtured by her interdisciplinary background. With a degree in chemistry, she decided to present and defend a thesis on “the valorisation of natural substances. It was about modifying them by biocatalysis in order to introduce new interesting properties for cosmetic applications”, then a post-doc “more focused on materials”, she adds. This led her, as soon as she arrived at the UTC, to work “on polymers with molecular imprints. In other words, polymers capable of recognizing a target molecule, and then on the design of degradable materials allowing the controlled release of active principle”. Hence the project to encapsulate betanine molecules. “The idea is to encapsulate them with a protective membrane to prevent degradation and thus improve their shelf life,” she adds.
The challenges ahead? “The first is to be able to manufacture capsules — from 5 to 10 μm — that are compatible with food applications. This limits us both in the type of materials that could be used and in the choice of manufacturing process. The second is to have a capsule that will be able to protect molecules throughout the digestive tract and release them into the intestine. Where it will be assimilated by the body,” she says. “The capsule must not open in the stomach, but only once it has reached the intestine,” insists Aude Cordin.
The aim of this project? “The aim of this project is to enrich a food product with antioxidants. A product which would thus have a preventive role for health. In this case, we are talking about health foods”, she explains. A project that is in an experimental phase with, already, tests on a first encapsulation method. “We were able to show that it is possible to encapsulate betanine and that this encapsulation improves the conservation of the substance over time. Other encapsulation systems are being studied for the controlled release of pigments in the intestine”, concludes Aude Cordin. This betanine encapsulation project, financed in particular by the Hauts de France Region and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), involves several laboratories: on the one hand, the UTC-BMBI and the UTC-TIMR, and on the other hand the UniLaSalle institute in Beauvais.
PortraitNesrine Ben Hadi Youssef is a PhD student at the UTCGEC (Enzyme and Cellular Engineering) Laboratory. She is expected to defend her thesis, supervised by Claire Rossi, Anne-Virginie Salsac and Aude Cordin, in January 2020.
During her studies as an agro-food engineer at Agro-Sup Dijon, she did a research internship at the University of Minnesota (USA) on flavour encapsulation.
“I discovered and appreciated the world of research there,” she says. This taste for research led her to do her final year internship at Adrianor (Arras), a technological resource centre at the interface between research and the food industry. “I carried out research there on the formulation of gluten-free bread,” she explains. It is therefore without hesitation that she is presenting her thesis on the “Microencapsulation of antioxidant molecules for the enrichment of food products” a subject proposed by the GEC Lab. In this context, Nesrine Ben Hadi Youssef is particularly interested in betanines, a class of antioxidants found in beet.
When did the academic and/or research relationship between Cranfield University and UTC begin?
The relationship between our two institutions goes back more than a decade, when the two universities signed a protocol for the exchange of students following a dual curriculum within the framework of the “European Partnership Programme” (EPP) set up by Cranfield University. Since then, UTC has been considered a major and strategic partner for Cranfield University.
In what areas have they developed?
They concern the food industry, biotechnology and bio-computing, automotive, aerospace and industrial production.
With regard to your own areas of expertise, what research is being or has been carried out in cooperation with UTC? With which laboratories?
As a specialist in applied bioinformatics, more particularly in machine learning, I have collaborated mainly with Professor Claire Rossi from UTC-GEC (Enzyme and Cellular Engineering) Laboratory (a UTC/CNRS mixed unit), with Benjamin Quost from UTC-Heudiasyc (Heuristics and Diagnostics of Complex Systems) Laboratory and with Claude-Olivier Sarde from UTC-TIMR (Integrated Transformations of Renewable Matter) Laboratory of the UTC in the fields of agro-food and bio-computing.
Can you specify and give concrete examples of collaboration?
It all started with the “European Partnership Agreement (EPP)” established by Cranfield University. A double degree curriculum that allowed high-potential students from UTC to join a MSc programme at our university after their third year. With one advantage: exemption from registration fees. Today, we have decided to go one step further with the EPP. This second phase concerns PhD students from both institutions who could, for their research, work either at Cranfield University or at UTC.
Another, more recent example of this collaboration?
A seminar entitled “Seed Meeting” held at the French Embassy in London in October 2018. Funded by the Department of Higher Education, Research and Innovation of the French Embassy in London, it was co-hosted by Claire Rossi and myself. The aim of this seminar? It notably served to identify potential synergies between our two teams in terms of research and innovation and to enhance research collaboration between our two universities. This meeting was very fruitful since we have already identified a possible research partnership in the field of bioactive molecules from plants. Our twoteams are currently trying to identify the most suitable calls for projects, both on a bilateral and international level, in order to officially conclude an agreement in the field of research between our two institutions.
Will there be closer links between researchers in the future? Absolutely, since over the years to come, researchers will be invited to spend half their time in Compiègne and the other half in Cranfield.
Megan Eoche-Duval graduated from UTC in 2017, majoring in Bio-Engineering, and specializing in Innovation, Food and Agroresources (IAA). She also holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition, from University Paris 6 (Pierre and Marie Curie). She has worked with the Danone Group since 2018. What motivated the choice of UTC? “During my MPC (math, physics & chemistry) preparation, I realized that I missed biology a lot. But at UTC, not having done biology before didn’t seem to be a problem, even though I had to work hard to catch up in the subject,” she explains. Another, older motivation? “When my brother was in his final high school class, we went to the UTC Open Day”. What did he like? “The fact that you can choose a personalised à la carte training course, have teachers who listen, work on projects — a good preparation for integration into a company — and finally that it offers activities such as drama or music classes, and is on a human scale,” she emphasizes. Megan Eoche-Duval was recruited by Danone at the end of her master’s internship as a member of the “Innovation Aquadrinks” team.
A word about the GEC team?
GEC is a smallish UTC research unit, comprising about thirty tenured staff — 20 lecturer-cum-research scientists and technical staff, engineers and lab technicians. However, depending on a given year and on the projects and funding available, there are between 60–70 personnel, including PhD and post-doc students.
What are the GEC’s major research areas?
The unit has recently been restructured around two main themes. All of the unit’s projects fit into one of the two themes, with a constant concern to provide answers to technological challenges, societal issues and scientific questions. The first, called the “green” theme, concerns everything related to plant metabolism and bioresources. Among the objectives is to have plants produce unusual molecules or produce them in small quantities. One of our goals is to avail of plants producing lipids that would eventually replace mineral oils. Hence our involvement in PIVERT, an Institute for Energy Transition (ITE) including industrialists, selected to benefit, as of 2011, under the Government incentive programme “Investments for the Future. We are also interested in polyphenols, which have properties that could be of interest for the agro-food industry, and we are carrying out more cross-disciplinary projects such as studying the interaction of plants with their environment — how to protect them from stress, from the action of micro-organisms or, for example, how to optimise the use of ligno-cellulosic residues once the oils have been extracted.
The second, the “red” theme, focussing on the issues of bio-mimetics and biomolecular diversity, with two complementary approaches. In the first case, our objective is to design biomolecule libraries containing antibody fragments, peptides or nucleic acids. Currently, we have libraries containing more than one billion molecules from which we are able to select bio-compounds of interest, capable of interacting with an identified target to neutralize or detect it. In the second case, we are interested in the development of materials dedicated to molecular recognition using a “tailor-made” approach. In other words, to create polymers with molecular prints with recognition performance levels on a par with that of antibodies. Here again, the fields of application range from health to agro-food, but can also be integrated into more fundamental studies. We have more and more cross-disciplinary projects, which is an indicator of the coherence of our themes. We are also relying increasingly on rationally designed tools.
Can you cite some practical applications?
We have many applications, so let me just mention a few. In the food sector, for example, we will use sensor-equipped polymers to detect problematic molecules in real time, such as the presence of anabolic agents, antibiotics and endocrine disturbers, pesticides in excess of thresholds or even diseases such as cystitis in cows. In the health field, the aim is to produce antibodies that can be used in immunotherapy. This field seems to be of particular interest to the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, with whom we have already worked as part of a European project.
In your opinion, what are the strong points of GEC? In terms of international visibility and recognition, I would cite, among other things, metabolic engineering of oilseed plants, our expertise in molecularly imprinted polymers and our knowhow in banking and breeding.